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Excerpt: 'Pound for Pound'

F.X. Toole's only novel is being published several years after his death.
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F.X. Toole's only novel is being published several years after his death.

Dan

In one way or another, Dan Cooley and Earl Daw had been partners for twenty years in the fight game, and co-owners for twelve in the body-and-fender business. Dan had opened the shop -- Shamrock Auto Body -- more than twenty years before Earl became a partner. Because of Earl's bad hands, and because his wife had urged him to stop fighting, Earl hung up his gloves permanently when his first daughter was born. Earl's deal with Dan was fifty-fifty, and they'd sealed it with a handshake.

Like their friendship, the deal had lasted.

Earl Daw was a lean, dark-skinned black man who'd been born in the Nickerson Gardens projects in Watts. As a middleweight, with Dan as his trainer, he'd fought his way out of the projects and made money doing it. Because of Earl's many one-punch knockouts, he was given the fighting name "Captain Hook" by sportswriters who recognized the devastating power in his left hand. But fight guys, guys on the inside, knew that Earl had soft hands, hands that would break under the tremendous force fighters can generate. Fight guys are known for being realists. Earl's name in the gym went from Captain Hook to Softhand, but, because fight guys are also known to simplify, the nickname was shortened to Soff, and that stuck, as in, "Say, Soff!"

What many didn't know was that Earl was a converted southpaw, and that under his father's, Shortcake's, instruction, he'd changed his stance to move his power from his rear, or defensive hand, to the hand closer to his opponent, his offensive hand. That change in stance often explained the knockout power of a big left-hooker.

***

Earl stood just inside the big roll-up door of the body shop and watched Dan get out of his truck, his movements slow and stiff, like an old man's. These days Dan would be fiddling with paperwork in his office upstairs one minute and then suddenly gone, destination unknown. Trouble was, Earl never knew when Dan might return. If indeed he would return -- that worried Earl a lot, each time. But he kept his mouth shut. And waited.

That day it was hot and dusty, a typical early fall day in Los Angeles, but the grass was green inside St. Athanasius Cemetery. Greener still the Connemara marble base of the Cooley family gravestone. Dan stood there just staring at it, his eyes moving from one name down to the next. All those dates were burned into his memory, as ineradicable as the letters incised in the stone.

brendan connor cooley 1963–1964

terrance declan cooley 1961–1985

mary catherine markey 1965–1992

eamon dermont markey 1960–1992

Little Brendan, his second son, dead of acute lymphoblastic leukemia before his second birthday. Terry, his fireman son, buried alive when a retaining wall at a construction site collapsed as he worked to remove a trapped laborer. His daughter, Mary Cat, three months' pregnant with her second child, and her husband, both killed when their plane missed the runway in Acapulco.

He could still see the little boy, standing rigid as he looked at the two rose-covered coffins, his eyes aching and dry. "But why did they put my mom and dad inside those long boxes?" Timothy Patrick Markey asked.

"Shhh, lad," said his grandmother Brigid. Her voice still had a trace of old-country brogue, thick and rich as Irish brown bread, and her eyes were so green they often looked purple. "Wait until after Father Joe's done."

The charred bodies of Tim Pat's mother and father had been flown back from Mexico in sealed aluminum tubes by the very same airline that had interrupted their second honeymoon when one of its aircraft crashed on final approach.

Tim Pat was six, bright as a new penny and full of life, but once he'd been told of his parents' death, the tears Dan expected him to shed never came, just a frightening stillness. It had taken over four weeks for the Mexican authorities to identify and return the bodies to Dan and Brigid, Tim Pat's grandparents. They moved Tim Pat's bed into their bedroom, where he'd slept fitfully. He hardly spoke once he knew the bodies had arrived, and had said nothing at the rosary or at the funeral mass, but now he shivered like a cold pup and wanted answers.

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